Interview with: Andy Russell and Melinda Wallman, Partners

Macrae | View firm profile

What do you see as the main points that differentiate Macrae from your competitors?

 Melinda Wallman (MW): Macrae is a legal recruiting boutique that does many things differently. For one, there’s our exclusive focus on partner-level placements, group moves and new office openings for Am Law 50 and UK top 20 firms. We’re able to thrive in this niche because over the past five years we’ve been building out our capacity across the US, the most important legal market in the world, as well as here in London. We’ve brought on recruiters with unparalleled experience who are at the top of their game and know their markets inside and out. London-based recruiters like me have unique access to information about what is happening in major American markets in real-time, as well as regular introductions to the leadership of key firms expanding in London and Europe.

It’s this collective intelligence that sets us apart and drives our ability to complete even the most complex, ‘needle in a haystack’ searches. I joined Macrae’s London office three years ago after nearly 20 years at global firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, during which I opened the London and Hong Kong offices and led the firm’s EMEA partner practice group. My colleagues in London and the US have similarly deep experience. The high-level relationships we’ve built over our careers, and continue to develop on a day-to-day basis, are a core component of our business model. Our extensive networks allow us to advise clients and candidates about what’s happening around the globe at any given point in time, how it impacts them, their practices and their firms.

Andy Russell (AR): I agree that we’re uniquely positioned to advise partners on their next move, to help them to evaluate and compare the risk not just of making a particular lateral move but also of staying where they are. We can explain to the superstar candidate who is getting called 50 times a month why they should be interested in a specific opportunity in a way that our competitors can’t. Partners choose us to represent them for these reasons, our experience, which provides us with judgment which is crucial in all lateral partners processes, which are always nuanced and require not only knowledge of what is happening locally but at headquarters. We have ready access to senior law firm management and have invested in infrastructure required to execute quickly and discreetly.

Something else that distinguishes Macrae is that we treat every search as a diversity search. We work with law firm leaders across all markets to keep diversity on the agenda. Over a third of our placements are partners who represent underrepresented talent in today’s legal market. It’s a track record we’re proud of.

How has Covid-19 impacted law firms’ lateral hiring needs? What are some key trends you’ve seen emerge in the UK as well as the US market?

 MW: We weren’t sure what to expect when the pandemic began but we weren’t surprised that from March through July of 2020, UK lateral activity grinded to a near-halt as firms processed the impact both economically and on remote working. The US market recovered before Europe, and by July 2020 top US firms saw an opportunity to take more market share from their UK competitors; UK firms started hiring again at the end of 2020 and since that time we have seen an unprecedented number of moves in London, Paris and Germany in an eight-month period.

Now the crunch is at the associate level, which impacts partners because they now feel the need to move to firms that have strong associate teams and good associate retention records. The differential between US and UK associate compensations drives some partners to US firms more than a desire to increase their own compensation. UK firms are now looking closely at what they pay associates, and it will be interesting to see what transpires over the next 12 months.

Another significant impact of Covid was the blow it dealt to UK firms’ ability to work efficiently in critical markets like Silicon Valley. UK firms and those based on the East Coast could no longer fly London-based partners to California in a heartbeat – or even at all – to handle important matters. It wasn’t long before some of the top performers began eyeing, and indeed executing on, plans to open offices there.

AR: Taking a look at the impact on law firm partners themselves, perhaps the biggest reverberation has been diminished connectivity to their firms. No more happenstance water-cooler chats, brainstorming, bonding over lunch, or other routine social components of law firm life that tie a person into a culture and can’t readily be replicated online. Partners not entirely satisfied have had the chance to evaluate what really matters to them in their careers and in their choice of a firm. Working from home makes it much easier to arrange meetings for both partners considering a move and firms considering a lateral hire, and their ability to easily communicate with us and firms has changed dramatically. In the amount of time it used to take to handle a few in-person meetings, candidates can have Zoom calls with many members of a prospective firm across multiple geographies. As a result, we’ve seen moves come together much more quickly.

Which areas of expertise do you expect will be most in-demand by law firms seeking lateral talent in the coming months?

 MW: The demand from US firms for partners with strong practices in private equity and other private asset classes is soaring, from PE M&A, leveraged finance and funds formation to public M&A as take-privates of FTSE companies continue. We’re also dealing with the aftermath of Brexit, which has required firms to build separate CMA and EC teams in London and Brussels. We’re working with a number of US firms that are considering establish a presence in Brussels, following Simpson and Kirkland earlier this year. In Germany our focus has been on corporate and private equity.

Across the pond in New York we’re still seeing a premium for capital markets lawyers due to SPAC work, though the extreme freneticism there appears to be dying down. There’s also continued demand for leveraged finance expertise that reflects the sheer volume of deals. In Washington, D.C. we’re continuing to see firms compete for talent coming out of government as well as laterals as they continue to beef up practice areas expected to see increased regulatory enforcement under the Biden administration. Senior lawyers with antitrust, SEC, DOJ, bank regulatory and life sciences expertise are in high demand. So, too, are those with expertise in cybersecurity, privacy and data security, and national security. In California, in addition to PE we’ve seen a heightened focus on antitrust as the Biden government rolls up its sleeves to do battle with Big Tech. Likewise, white collar and investigations is heating up as the Biden government gets more rigorous in pursuing claims in the wake of a rather hands-off Trump administration. There’s also a growing need for AgTech expertise and an overlapping interest in growing cannabis practices due to the liberalization of US marijuana laws.

Can you give us practical examples of how you have helped law firms add value to their business?

AR: Our work with law firms goes well beyond identifying talent, getting to ‘yes’ and closing deals. It’s not uncommon for us to bring laterals to law firms in areas they’ve struggled to hire in for a long period of time. This can entail taking a close look at what the firms have been doing wrong, defining the relevant distinguishing features that will appeal to laterals in a given market, and recommending changes. Likewise, we advise firms on their reputation broadly and in specific markets and practice areas, as well as on their relative performance to their historical peers. Where are they now and why, and how can they get where they want to be? We also advise firms on compensation, as thorny an issue as it has ever been for UK firms. It’s not easy to modify partner compensation systems to secure much-needed talent without negatively impacting culture – yet there are ways it can be done.

As a firm that has grown rapidly over the past few years, both in headcount and geography, where do you see Macrae in a few years’ time?

MW: Macrae’s plan over the next four or five years is to bring on more recruiters within our existing markets, which are the four most important globally. We’re in no rush, though. We expect to focus primarily on building out our UK and New York teams, while adding in California and D.C. if the right strategic opportunities arise.

AR: Rest assured, we will be the same Macrae, continuing to serve the same kind of clients and candidates. We’ll just be a bit bigger, and even stronger.